Text: Genesis 32:22-31
The last time I preached on this text from Genesis, of Jacob wrestling with the angel, I told you about my uncle Grover who is not really my uncle but a relative on my father’s side of the family. I talked about how Uncle Grover loved to watch World-Wide Wrestling on Sunday evenings and how as a child I would wrestle with my cousins as Uncle Grover shouted at the TV. Those Sunday evenings with Uncle Grover and World-Wide Wrestling are among my favorite childhood memories. In that sermon, I likened Jacob to those Sunday-night wrestling characters on the TV. A schemer and deceiver, he had swindled his brother for his birthright and then cheated him of his father’s blessing as the first-born. Fearful of his brother’s anger and grief, he fled his home, and for the next fifteen years he went head-to-head with his equally devious uncle, Laban—squabbling and double-dealing over everything from wives to livestock. Having worn out his welcome in his uncle’s foreign land, he once again went on the run, taking with him his family, servants, and all the wealth he could carry. When he could no longer run or hide, Jacob begins preparing to meet up with his estranged brother, Esau. That is where the lectionary text picks up the story.
Today, I want to tell you about another important person from my childhood—my maternal grandmother, Georgia. My grandmother was a short stout woman, today she might be described as a full-figured lady. To get a picture of her think about Aunt Bee on the Andy Griffith show but with one notable and noticeable difference. My grandmother walked with a limp, and most of the time she used a cane to steady herself. I’m not sure why she walked with a limp but I have a memory of someone in the family talking about the time she got her leg and hip caught in an elevator door. I’m not sure if that story has merit or if it’s just part of the family folklore. Regardless, I never knew my grandmother when she didn’t walk with a limp.
The other lasting memory I have of my grandmother is the struggle she endured with her youngest son, Earl. Earl was an alcoholic who wandered from job to job and often found himself homeless. When he was at his worst drinking and jobless, he would return to my grandparents’ house where he would live until he could get himself together enough to work again. Throughout my childhood, I would watch my grandmother wrestle and struggle with how to best love her youngest son. I can remember hearing her cry in the night as Earl would stumble home unable to make it from the front door to the bedroom. Even as a child, I somehow knew that in the darkness and stillness of the night she was wrestling with herself trying to make peace with loving her youngest son unconditionally. While her physical limp was seen by all, it was her inner limp that I saw.
The question of who Jacob was wrestling with on the riverbank of the ford of the Jabbok has intrigued and baffled readers of this text for generations. Was it an angel? Could it have been his brother Esau? Was it God? Or, was it Jacob wrestling with himself? Some might say that it really doesn’t matter, that the question of “who” Jacob wrestles with is not the point of the story. But I would disagree. And here’s why? The spiritual life is marked by our willingness to go to the mat and wrestle with ourselves—our shadows, our darkness, our struggles, our disappointments, our mistakes—and then, and here is the real kicker, to learn how to bless them.
We live in a society where we can pay someone to do almost anything we need doing. With our wealth we can purchase not only goods but services. We pay people to clean our houses, wash our clothes, cut our grass, shop for our groceries and deliver them to us, walk our dogs, and do any other chore we need doing. We can pay people to stand in line for us. We can even pay our way to the front of the line. Let me be quick to say that I am not judging. I pay for some of the services I’ve just named. My point is that part of what we have lost spiritually as a people is our willingness to do our inner, sometimes hard work for ourselves. We want someone else to do it for us. We want the five steps to a fulfilling life. We want to know the three things that will bring happiness to our lives. We want an expert to tell us how best to parent our children. In many aspects, we have lost our willingness and desire to wrestle with ourselves—our shadows, our disappointments, and our mistakes—and our spiritual lives are lacking as a result. We have fallen into what I called the “Jacob Plan.” Listen to the “Jacob Plan”: “…he [Jacob] took a present for his brother Esau, two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys…He instructed the foremost, ‘When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us…’ For Jacob thought ‘I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” The “Jacob Plan” relies on us appeasing our inner souls with things—presents, wealth, and having someone else do our hard work for us. Instead of wrestling with the tough questions in our lives, instead of persevering through the night when we find ourselves wrestling and struggling with our inner soul, we have become accustomed to turning to the “Jacob Plan” of trying to appease ourselves and others with things.
But in the end, as Jacob would learn, our willingness to wrestle with ourselves is the true path to finding blessing. Indeed, we may come out of our wrestling match limping but we will be blessed, for God longs to bless us in our struggles. And what happens to us when we receive God’s blessing? We are changed and transformed. We stop running from our fears. We face our disappointments and seek to redeem and reconcile our mistakes. The truth is that Jacob wasn’t seeking out transformation. He was hiding from his brother. But in the night something happened and he found the courage to face himself—to wrestle his shadows, his hurts, his disappointments, his mistakes—and there in the presence of God that was already within him he found his way to blessing his life. It wasn’t easy to get to the blessing. It didn’t come without cost, without pain, without a limp. But the morning came and with it blessing.
Sometimes, as someone suggested in lectionary, it is the part of us that is God—the good part of us—that we wrestle with the most. Maybe that explains why at daybreak Jacob proclaims, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Maybe that is the core of the spiritual life—seeing God within us and blessing the part of us that is the image of God. That may sound simple, but it is a profound idea and it doesn’t happen without a lot of wrestling in the night and without some limping.
Carlyle Marney, one of the greatest liberal Baptist preachers of the 20th century, was known for his keen insight into scripture and the human soul. There is story told about a class that Marney was teaching one semester at Southeastern Seminary that involves this story of Jacob wrestling with God. As the story goes, a student was sharing with the class all the struggles he had faced throughout his life. The longer the student talked the more depressing his story became, for indeed he had faced many horrible life challenges. By the time he had concluded his story, most of the people in the class were feeling emotionally exhausted. Out of the silence, Marney looked at the young man and said, “There is but one question: Can you bless it?” Can you bless the struggle? Can you bless the woundedness? Can you see that the limp you walk with is a part of the blessing?
Can you? Can you see that the limp you walk with is a part of the blessing? Few of us make it through life without a limp. I don’t know if my grandmother was ever able to bless her inner limp—to bless those nights she wrestled with herself and with what it meant to love an alcoholic son unconditionally. But I have learned from this Jacob story that the spiritual life is marked by our willingness to wrestle with ourselves and with God who resides within us. If we are willing to wrestle, we may come out limping but we will be blessed.
May you find such blessing in your life.